As businesses tentatively begin to think about Covid ‘recovery’ from the autumn onwards, occupational health could have a pivotal role in terms of providing leadership around mental health care and support. Vicky Walker outlines five areas where OH may be able to make a difference in this ‘new normal’.
In 2020, employee mental health became a c-suite concern. At Wesfield Health, for example, our Coping after Covid report discovered that not addressing wellbeing was costing UK businesses billions every year.
This presents occupational health practitioners with an ideal opportunity to embed wellbeing into the foundations of any roadmap to recovery. But with so much at stake, what are the areas that need to be addressed to make sure that businesses not only survive, but thrive?
Throughout the pandemic, as employees faced new ways of working and continued uncertainty, both their mental and physical wellbeing suffered.
Our research found that in 2020, days off due to mental health rose by 10%, costing the English economy £14bn (up by £1.3bn on 2019). Worryingly, 36% of employees said mental health affects their work on a weekly basis and 29% also said that their physical health was poor, or worse, in the last year which has increased the workload of occupational health professionals.
OH working with senior leaders
The path to rehabilitating the workforce must see senior leaders work with occupational health practitioners to ensure employees have access to convenient and quality mental healthcare so that they feel safe, healthy, happy and productive.
There is an opportunity for more open and supportive conversations between occupational health professionals, employees, and senior leadership. Pre-Covid-19, the rewards of operating a successful wellbeing programme and its impact on the bottom line were clear, however it wasn’t deemed as an area of focus for many.
Businesses are not going to recover economically unless they work directly with occupational health professionals to ensure employee mental and physical health is a long-term priority.
With greater wellbeing leading to better retention rates and higher productivity, it must be seen as a core, strategic focus that is handled across all departments. Health and wellbeing needs to be prioritised because together with engagement it is intrinsically linked to company performance, meaning it should be the centre of attention for all business leaders.
Five areas to focus on
Focusing efforts on wellbeing can have a positive impact on company culture because addressing the issues highlighted in Coping after Covid shows team members that they are valued as individuals. It can also help normalise discussion around mental health in the workplace and it is always easier to defeat something that is visible.
But building a successful roadmap to recovery will require work from the top of an organisation to its bottom. When taking this holistic approach there are five key areas that businesses should consider:
- Ensure that there is clear communication between occupational health teams, senior management, and employees so the workforce understands who is accountable for the wellbeing programme and its impact. Businesses should also consider setting up an employee working group to make dialogue between employees and employer clear, consistent, and constructive. If done properly it can be a very effective tool in recovering and maintaining business morale.
- Business leaders should carry out mental health first aid training. This is so they can identify any issues early when intervention and referral to occupational health can be at its most effective.
- Expenditure on wellbeing is projected to increase to £345 per employee per year by 2025, but it isn’t a case of how much, but how it’s invested that’s important. Businesses must understand how to boost productivity by looking after employee mental wellbeing on a case-by-case basis.
- Requesting feedback from employees and listening to what measures they need in place can help grow relationships within a business. For some that might be sleep workshops or mental health courses, whereas others might look for access to counselling and gym memberships. Investing in such initiatives will help maximise ROI and improve outcomes.
- Analyse the data from employee performance. Take a baseline of employee wellbeing and repeat after any new wellbeing initiatives are introduced to understand which are having the greatest impact. By including employee wellbeing metrics alongside other business performance data, a clear connection can be made.
Too big an opportunity to miss
Mental health has become one of the biggest challenges for employees and employers to date. As many workers struggle to manage an evolving work dynamic amid the recovery from a global pandemic, organisations must prioritise mental health to avoid a decline in productivity and prevent burnout.
According to our research, by 2025, if businesses maximise their wellbeing spend the increase in productivity could boost the English economy by £61bn.
It’s a risk that’s too big to be ignored and an opportunity that’s too big to be missed. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved that health isn’t just an issue for individuals or the NHS, it affects every aspect of our lives from where we work to how we socialise. It’s an issue for individuals, businesses and governments alike.
The upshot of the time, resource and planning that businesses invest into employee health and wellbeing will be reflected in a workforce able to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Businesses that adhere to that and plan a recovery roadmap that puts mental health at the forefront, will be the ones that not only survive but thrive.